After Georgia Tech’s 2021 season ended, Ed Coco believed his son’s football journey had run its course. Jack Coco had defied the odds, making it as an undersized walk-on offensive lineman and long snapper at Tech out of Johns Creek High, then earning a spot in the lineup as the Yellow Jackets’ snapper for placekicks, then trimming down during the first months of pandemic to convert to tight end and earning playing time there before finally earning a scholarship in his senior season.
On track to earn a master’s degree in real estate development and possessing a well-earned reputation for diligence and relentlessness, Coco had professional opportunities opening up.
“I’m a dad,” Ed Coco said. “And I looked at the stats of kids coming out of college, playing in the NFL as a long snapper or tight end/H-back. I said, ‘Jack, this is a complete longshot. Like, really long. And so I really would love you to start interviewing. I’ve got friends calling me.’”
The calls may still be coming to Ed Coco’s phone, but they’re more likely to offer congratulations. Jack Coco made the decision to hold off on commercial real estate to pursue his NFL dreams, which officially will be realized Sunday. When the Green Bay Packers open the season against the Minnesota Vikings, Coco will be handling the long snaps for Green Bay.
“We’re very proud of him because it was a journey that we didn’t know how it would end, but it’s going to go on,” Ed Coco said. “It continues.”
Coco shares the Packers roster with another rookie from Tech, safety Tariq Carpenter. A seventh-round pick, Carpenter was one of the final players to make it onto the active 53-man roster. Carpenter has walked his own remarkable path of overcoming a series of life obstacles to achieve the near-impossible task of making an NFL roster. The son of a woman who joined the U.S. Army to get health insurance for her children but ended up getting sent overseas five times, Carpenter lived with his mother on deployment for a total of more than four years, often in harm’s way, moved multiple times and did not have his father present in his life. And that’s only the start.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Carpenter’s mother, Demetria Fiffie, said. “You just don’t know.”
Each in his own way, Coco and Carpenter summoned uncommon determination to make it to the top. One calculation of the odds of making the path from high-school football to the NFL measures it at one out of every 4,316 high-school players. For both young men, that might be lowballing it.
At Tech’s Pro Day on March 14, Coco had a story to tell, but was a questionable prospect on paper. Few NFL aspirants could say they had arrived at their college as a walk-on, dropped 30 pounds (he ate only grilled chicken and salad for lunch and dinner for several weeks) to play a new position (tight end, from offensive line), earned playing time at that position, won the unchecked respect of teammates and coaches with his peerless weight-room work ethic and was placed on scholarship. However, by moving to tight end, he didn’t long snap in the 2021 season. Further, he hadn’t been a long snapper for punts since high school. It would seem not difficult for NFL scouts to find a better snapping candidate. Hence, his father’s nudging him to start his real-estate career.
Credit: Evan Siegle
Credit: Evan Siegle
But Coco wanted to take a shot at the NFL, so Dad told his business friends to wait. Coco performed at Tech’s Pro Day, which led to a connection with Packers assistant special-teams coach Byron Storer. On Storer’s advice, Coco (as he continued his master’s program work) worked with a private special-teams coach and former Tech long snapper Andrew Economos, who had played in the NFL for Storer and Packers special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
But on the final day of the draft in April, as teams signed undrafted rookies, Coco’s phone was silent. Coco’s dad suggested he call Storer.
“Jack didn’t get a call Sunday (the day after the draft),” Ed Coco said. “He got a call Monday after Jack calls, like, 20 times.”
That got him a toe in the door, a tryout at the Packers’ rookie minicamp. He was one of 18 tryout players, but the only one who was signed to the offseason roster, beating out another rookie long snapper. The toehold had become slightly firmer. But the Packers still had an incumbent to beat out.
“It’s what every kid wants,” Ed Coco said. “They just want a shot.”
In offseason workouts, Coco trained under Bisaccia and Storer, acquiring the skill to try to be one of the top 32 long snappers in the world. In training camp, Coco proved himself to the point that the Packers released the incumbent snapper, Steven Wirtel, before the first exhibition game. In his three-game tryout, Coco delivered.
At the Packers’ family night, Ed Coco and his wife, Jill, met Bisaccia.
“He goes, ‘Not many young men have the heart your son has,” said Ed Coco, breaking down in tears relating the story.
The team continued to assess other options, but none proved more appealing than Coco. Few jobs in the NFL are secure, but Coco’s could be his so long as he performs.
“He’s a culture-fit for us, and he’s done a really nice job with the things that Rich has asked him to do,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said Aug. 31 in a news conference in Green Bay.
“Literally, (Storer) said, ‘We’d love you to be here 10-plus years,’” Ed Coco said.
Jack Coco’s dad called his son making the roster of a Super Bowl contender “surreal.” It’s hard to challenge that. For the NFL’s opening week, there are only two rookie long snappers, according to longsnap.com. One of them didn’t long snap last season and had to light up a coach’s phone just to get a tryout.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Man, they got a long snapper,’” Tech strength coach Lewis Caralla said in a video posted to social media. “No, man, they got a warrior. They got a guy that just broke every rule. They got a guy that just broke the whole book of odds.”
Carpenter’s trials have taken a different form. He grew up the child of a single mother without his biological father present in his life. He was diagnosed with ADHD. He stuttered and was bullied as a child.
He was 2 years old when his mother, Demetria Fiffie, enlisted in the U.S. Army for steady work and health insurance. It proved incredibly bad timing. The day that she reported for duty at Fort Stewart – planning to work on base and be with her children – was Sept. 11, 2001.
It led to her deployment to Iraq three times and Afghanistan and South Korea once each. Carpenter and his sister, Alexis Chatmon, grew up in an environment of separation and inconsistency, staying with family members and friends while their mother was half a world away, often in a war zone. They lived in three different states.
“There’s been some rough years, but we got through all of them,” Fiffie said.
With his mother and stepfather guiding him – Fiffie remembers when her son wanted to quit his sixth-grade football team, she told him that “we don’t quit in this family” – Carpenter made it to Tech from Long County High in South Georgia.
He had maturity issues to grapple with, to say nothing of the challenges of playing college football and taking on Tech’s curriculum with a neurodevelopmental disorder. But he graduated in December with a degree in literature, media and communications and was a four-year starter at safety.
“He just doesn’t give up on himself,” said Nathan Burton, Carpenter’s position coach for his final three seasons. “He’s persistent. He’ll challenge himself. Anything that he thinks or deems as a negative or a distraction, he’ll use that for his internal focus to push him on. Like if you say, ‘Come on, Tariq, you can do better,’ sometimes he’ll be like, ‘Oh, you don’t think I’m good enough.’ He’ll push himself to the max.”
A seventh-round draft pick, Carpenter walked a tightrope to make the roster. A preseason knee injury didn’t help. But, when the Packers made their final cuts, Carpenter was left standing.
“I’m just blessed that God placed the right people in his life to help him grow, to keep on doing what he has been doing, wanting to do all his life and carry out his dreams,” Fiffie said. “I’m just so blessed.”
Other former Jackets players made NFL rosters this year as rookies. Former Tech running back Jordan Mason made the San Francisco roster as an undrafted free agent, another longshot made good. Three others, Devin Cochran (Bengals), Kyric McGowan (Washington) and Juanyeh Thomas (Dallas), all begin the season on practice squads.
“Eventually, you just keep on working hard, everything’s going to fall exactly where you need it to fall,” Fiffie said.
Sometimes, it falls in Green Bay.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com